A little gloating

With the last Friday and Saturday of 2014 behind us, I can gloat a little bit about the fact that I’ve kept my New Year’s resolution: I’ve posted an entire year’s worth of weekly Vegan Friday and Eco-Saturday projects.

I wasn’t sure I’d have enough Eco-Saturday ideas to keep going after this year, but after I sat down and looked at what was left on my original list and went through some books and websites in search of other possibilities, I realized I had enough potential material to carry me well into 2015, so we’ll keep rolling with that tag until I run out of ideas.

Vegan Friday was a bit trickier, partly because my standards are high: If a vegan recipe is a pain in the arse to make, I’m not trying it, and if I try a recipe and it doesn’t taste good, I’m not posting it. That filters out a lot of recipes. It was a worthy project while it lasted, but I just don’t have the time or will to continue it for another year.

Instead, I’m turning Vegan Friday into Vegetarian Friday. Aside from an occasional batch of chicken posole or pigs in blankets, just about everything I cook is meat-free, so coming up with 52 different recipes should be easy, and staying in my culinary comfort zone should give me more time to stage photographs properly instead of trying to snap something with my iPhone on the fly because I just realized it’s Thursday night and I still haven’t come up with a good replacement for the vile-tasting-but-gorgeous Brussels sprouts I made Monday or whatever. It occurs to me that my light-therapy lamp and a couple of sheets of foamboard would probably go a long way toward making my recipe posts a little more Pinterest-friendly.

The vegetarian recipes should help advance one of my long-term goals, which is to reduce my meat consumption in a sensible, sustainable way. (I’m still sorting out the details, but in essence, I’m hoping to phase out one food category per quarter until I’m more or less vegetarian again.)

I have a couple of other projects up my sleeve, too, but I’ll share those once I figure out the details.


Eco-Saturday: Crock-Pot yogurt

Making your own yogurt is a good way to save money and cut down on packaging at the same time — and this method is so easy, you’ll never bother with store-bought again, especially after you taste the homemade stuff.

Half-gallon of milk
Half-cup of plain yogurt

Slow cooker
Candy thermometer

This is really challenging: You have to pour milk into a Crock-Pot.
This is really challenging: You have to pour milk into a Crock-Pot.

Dump the milk into your slow cooker, turn it on high, and ignore it. About two hours in, start checking it with the candy thermometer every 15 minutes until it reaches 180 degrees. That temperature will kill off any unwanted strains of bacteria that might be floating around in there.

When the milk reaches 180, shut off the slow cooker and ignore it some more. After about two and a half hours, start checking the temperature until it reaches somewhere between 105 and 115 degrees. That temperature is warm enough to incubate yogurt.

Save back a half-cup of this batch of yogurt, and you can use it to inoculate the next batch so you don't have to buy more.
Save back a half-cup of this batch of yogurt, and you can use it to inoculate the next batch so you don’t have to buy more. You can do that for two or three batches before the cultures start to wear out.

When the milk is between 105 and 115 degrees, whisk in half a cup of plain yogurt.

The towel helps hold in heat.
The towel helps hold in heat.

Remove the crock from the cooker, wrap it in towels, and set it in the oven. Turn the oven light on and leave it overnight. (Alternately, you can pour the milk into canning jars, close the jars tightly, and put them in a small cooler. Run hot tap water in the cooler up to the lids of the jars, close the cooler, and leave it on the counter overnight.)

You can make yogurt in a stockpot, but it sticks to the bottom and makes a horrible mess. The Crock-Pot is much easier to clean, as the milk doesn't burn on.
You can make yogurt in a stockpot, but it sticks to the bottom and makes a horrible mess. The Crock-Pot is much easier to clean, as the milk doesn’t burn on.

In the morning, your milk will have turned to yogurt. Whole milk will generally produce thicker yogurt than skim, but you can adjust the thickness by straining the finished yogurt.

Homemade yogurt may look thin at first because it doesn't have gelatin or artificial thickeners in it.
Homemade yogurt may look thin at first because it doesn’t have gelatin or artificial thickeners in it. Straining thickens it up.

If you want Greek yogurt, line a sieve with a clean tea towel and set it on top of a bowl or pan.

About half the yogurt's volume is whey.
About half the yogurt’s volume is whey.

Dump the yogurt into the sieve and let it drain in the refrigerator until its volume has reduced by about half.

After straining. Much thicker.
After straining. Much thicker.

Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator and use in smoothies or serve with granola and fruit. If you’re vegetarian or just trying to lose weight, Greek yogurt also makes a good low-fat way to sneak some extra protein into your diet — just stir in some ranch dressing mix and use as you would sour cream.

You can also make a tangy substitute for cream cheese by straining your Greek yogurt overnight.


Vegan Friday: Hard cider

Yes, I drink my cider out of a Champagne flute. The shape of the glass helps preserve the carbonation.
Yes, I drink my cider out of a Champagne flute. It’s that good. Plus the shape of the glass helps preserve the carbonation.

That’s right, kids: This week’s Vegan Friday project is booze.

This is not a quick recipe. It’s not terribly labor-intensive (you’re looking at maybe 30 minutes of actual work), but it’s done in three steps, and you have to wait two weeks between each step, so if you’re looking for instant gratification, this isn’t the project for you. Details below the fold.

Continue reading Vegan Friday: Hard cider

Christmas with the Devil


Ron waited until Monday to tell me he didn’t have to work today, and my editor sent out an email this morning telling all the reporters we could leave as soon as we filed our stories, so we ended up with an unexpected afternoon off and no specific plans or projects on our agenda.

Ron had posted a blog entry yesterday about the fact that the folks in Devil’s Elbow — who busted their butts to save the awesome historic bridge that carries Route 66 across the Big Piney River — have decorated the bridge for Christmas, possibly for the first time in its history.

It takes about three hours to get from Cape to the Elbow Inn.

We have to work tomorrow.

The Elbow Inn has good barbecue.

I think we all know what happened next.


And that, kids, is how we came to spend Christmas Eve celebrating the birth of Jesus at a biker bar in the Ozarks.

On the way back, I insisted on stopping to take some pictures of the gorgeous neon restoration at the former Skylark Motel — now a VFW — in St. Clair:



Eat your heart out, Clark Griswold.


The sun’ll come out …

We went and saw the remake of Annie last night when we got back from exchanging Christmas presents with my family. I tend not to be a fan of remakes, because you damn kids get off my lawn, but this new Annie was much better than I’d anticipated.

My only real complaints were the excessive use of electronic pitch correction — which I loathe — and the questionable decision to cast Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan. She wasn’t awful; she just wasn’t good enough to follow Carol Burnett (although admittedly, I’m not sure who would have been).

All that said, I thought it was an effective update on a classic, and Quvenzhane Wallis was cute and plucky and made a good foil for Jamie Foxx. Bonus points to whoever was responsible for casting the dog: This is the first Sandy in the entire history of the musical who’s actually resembled the red, pointy-eared dog from the comic strip.

Meanwhile …

Annie may be convinced the sun’ll come out tomorrow, but around here, we’ve been “stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely” so many times in a row that I finally gave up and shucked out 30 bucks for some fake sunshine today in the form of a light therapy lamp.


We’ll see if it helps. It’s certainly bright. Rainy, misty days are kind of pretty, but too many of them in a row tend to drain my energy and leave me feeling pretty rough around the edges. About all I can say for this winter is that it hasn’t been too icy. After last winter, that’s a huge blessing, but I still could use a little more sunshine.

Ah, well. One way or the other, the sun’ll come out Feb. 19, because that’s the day the Phillies have their first spring training workout. I love ya, spring training. You’re only 57 days away.

In unrelated news, I finally got a hand free to take my guitar to Shivelbine’s and have the action lowered, which it desperately needed. It’s much easier to play now. The guy who worked on it was super nice and didn’t even charge me for it.

They had a 12-string Alvarez for sale. Don’t think I didn’t think about it. The main thing holding me back is laziness: I don’t like replacing strings on the guitar I have. I don’t even want to think about replacing twice as many. o_O


Eco-Saturday: Recycled dog sweater

Here’s an easy way to recycle an old sweatshirt into a cute little sweater that will earn you the undying contempt of your favorite small dog. I swiped this idea from my mom, who made this little sweater for Cleremont, my sister’s Maltese.

Excuse the fuzzy picture. Cleremont wouldn't stand still long enough for me to get a decent shot.
Excuse the fuzzy picture. Cleremont wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to get a decent shot.

Maltese are single-coated dogs, meaning they don’t have that extra layer of dense fur you find on working breeds such as collies and Labradors. In the winter, Cleremont’s fur isn’t quite thick enough to keep him warm when he goes out, so Mom repurposed the arm of an old sweatshirt to solve that problem.

You don’t need any sewing skills for this project. If you can operate a pair of scissors, you’re set.

Cut the arm out of an old sweatshirt. The cuff will become the neckhole. Just below the cuff, cut a couple of small holes for your dog’s front legs. (You’ll want to measure the distance from the dog’s neck to its front legs to get the holes in the right place.)

Measure your dog from its neck to its tail. Cut the sleeve to that length, then trim it at an angle to allow clearance on the underside so the dog doesn’t pee on it.

Cleremont gets a little attention from my dad while modeling his sweater. He's a pretty good dog.
Cleremont gets a little attention from my dad while modeling his sweater. Notice how the side of the sweater is cut at an angle to cover as much of his back as possible.

Put the sweater on the dog. (Try to avoid being bitten in the process.) You may need to take it back off and make adjustments once the dog tries it on and you see how it fits. Try not to make too many adjustments. Your dog already hates you for making it wear clothes. Don’t push your luck. A cat would be plotting to kill you in your sleep by this point.


Vegan Friday: Gumbo

Gumbo is one of those recipes with endless variations. But to make a respectable gumbo, you absolutely must use the following:

1. Roux (flour browned in oil or butter)
2. Okra
3. File (powdered sassafras leaves)
4. Holy Trinity (sauteed celery, onions and bell peppers)
5. Cayenne

The best gumbo also contains shrimp and Andouille sausage, but this vegan variant isn’t bad. I used frozen and canned ingredients, but as always, fresh is better if you have time to mess with it. Don’t let the ingredients list scare you off; it looks long, but a lot of it is stuff you have on hand.

1 1/2 c. frozen celery, onion and pepper mix
1 c. tricolor pepper mix
Olive oil
1 can diced tomatoes
1 cube veggie bouillon
1 tsp. file
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. Jane’s Crazy Mixed-Up Pepper (OK to substitute coarse black pepper)
Cayenne to taste
2 tsp. salt OR 1 tsp. salt + 1 tsp. smoked salt
Pinch of ground chipotle
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bag frozen cut okra
1 1/2 c. frozen zucchini (optional)
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
4 bay leaves

Saute the first two ingredients in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until onions are clear.

I've seen gumbo recipes that left out the celery. These were created by Communists, obviously.
I’ve seen gumbo recipes that left out the celery. These recipes were created by fascists, obviously.

While vegetables cook, put about two tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan and add enough flour to make a dryish paste. Heat, stirring frequently, until browned. This is your roux. It is absolutely essential to a decent gumbo.

I've also seen recipes that left out the file. These recipes were created by al-Qaeda operatives.
I’ve also seen recipes that left out the file. These recipes were created by al-Qaeda operatives.

Dump tomatoes into Crock-Pot. Whisk in the roux. Add two cans of water, whisking between each addition. Whisk in file, paprika, thyme, pepper, cayenne, salt and chipotle. (Chipotle isn’t traditional, but it adds a smoky note you really need if you aren’t using sausage.)

Gumbo before it cooks. The finished product won't be this colorful, but it will taste magnificent.
Gumbo before it cooks. The finished product won’t be this colorful, but it will taste magnificent.

Sitr in remaining ingredients except bay leaves. Add bay leaves last, turn Crock-Pot to high and ignore for four hours (or turn Crock-Pot on low and cook overnight or while you’re at work). If your finished gumbo seems too thin, add a little more roux.

Remove bay leaves and serve over rice or couscous.



It’s cold and gray outside, and it’s making me tired and grouchy.

Only one way to handle a crappy day: Work on a Route 66 project.

Fortunately, I have one brewing. Rich Henry, proprietor of Henry’s Ra66it Ranch on Route 66 in Staunton, Illinois, mentioned on the Yahoo! group the other day that he was looking for a volunteer to paint a Rainbow Bridge mural on the side of his building. I told him I might know a girl. 🙂

I can’t drive two and a half hours in the dark to go paint a mural in the rain right this second, but a cold Monday evening seems as good a time as any to get out some colored pencils and work up a rough sketch.